Music Business — March 8, 2013 at 10:45 am

The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of HMV


HMV story

As a teenager in the U.S., I would regularly visit the Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, New Jersey (check out their website at which formed part of my musical education. It was a thrill to browse through boxes of used records to see what was on offer, and given a limited budget, what was on sale.

For a while, it was all about the vinyl, as I flipped through endless copies of groups that everyone already had in their homes (The Eagles, for example). “Hotel California” could be bought for the bargain price of $2.99. There were more copies of “Saturday Night Fever” than one knew what to do with. Alternatively, a special pressing of The Beatles (name your album here) sold at a premium, as did a UK import by many notable independent acts. Bring in 10 dollars and a few treasures could be found. Sell some records, take up the trade value (opting to trade offered more bang for the buck) and a spring Saturday might turn into a treasure trove of happiness if you were a music fan.

But beyond the depth and breath of what they sold (more than 100,000 albums on hand), the sense of potluck and the constant blaring of some new (or even old) eclectic act coming out of the speakers, was a sense of community. 99 percent of the people in the Record Exchange were music lovers. Many had come from all over the State. And everyone was a on a shared mission: to find some specific music gem, or better yet, to browse, gaze at covers and learn more about great artists and amazing tunes.

From a small hole in the wall, the simple concept (buy and sell used albums) spread to a warehouse like building that contained albums, CDs, cassettes, DVDs and more. If it wasn’t carried at the Princeton Record Exchange, it most likely didn’t exist.

By the time the store was being written up in national publications like The New York Times, I was already in Hong Kong. And for a while, Hong Kong was a pretty shoddy city for music. Mom & Pop stores sold the top 10 UK and US releases aside a slew of Cantopop. And if you did find a store that went beyond that, it was usually hidden and akin to finding some kind of buried treasure.

That is, until HMV came along.

Its launch in Hong Kong during the mid-90s was met with acclaim. Practically overnight, the musical landscape of the city changed. Gone were the Cantopop ripoffs of Western songs, for now, local residents never exposed to acts beyond their shores could listen to anyone they wanted to on headphones. Gone were the long waits for imported product. There was also no need to pay super inflated prices for UK music magazines. And sales? Yes, there were plenty of hidden goodies available during their year-end closing sales.

For years, the massive HMV anchor stories in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui and Central locations were party central for local and international music lovers alike. At one point, the TST location even occupied thousands of square feet and three massive floors in the heart of a prime tourist area. One could spend hours there browsing for nothing in particular and walk out with an armful of eclectic CDs, random DVDs and magazines from around the world—and many did.

Eventually though, a combination of factors lead to the stores downsizing in Hong Kong. The city’s notorious sky-high rents forced the main stores to shrink, move and close in several areas. Among true music aficionados, smaller stores (White Noise Records in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay area, for example) sold niche albums at a cheaper price (HMV was notorious for inflating prices, reportedly at 20% or more). And yes, internet piracy was definitely another reason.

The latter is surely why the HMV Group has gone into administration in the UK. Many surely asked, why pay inflated CD prices when one can download for free? Why have 219 stores open in the UK when nobody is buying? (As of now, 103 stores are slated for closure there.) And with the decreasing balance sheets before them, why hadn’t management prepared for the internet’s possibilities well in advance? (perhaps, as one recent story about an irate laid off and loyal employee who hijacked the company’s Twitter site alleges, management was too old school to deal with rapid changes brought about as a result of the internet).

Regionally, there have been other issues with HMV. In Singapore, there have been anecdotal complaints about music being played two loudly in their two branches. Surly help has also reportedly been cited as a factor in a reduction of visitors. In Hong Kong, branches are no longer in visible Central areas. Once one finds their stores, browsers are met with friendly staff in venues that resemble massive media tombs. And always, there’s the issue of over inflated prices for product (an issue that has been plaguing the entire music industry for at least a decade). Somewhat ironically, the supply and demand for live concerts in both cities has never been bigger.

But despite its management faults and misfortunes, we need a store like HMV in Asia—and here’s why. The internet can still be baffling for the casual music lover—those who prefer, say Beyoncé and Bon Jovi to Sonic Youth and Sunno. Aside from searching music sites or YouTube, how does the casual music lover know when their favorite artist is going to release a single, an album or go on tour? Where can one find the new DVD of that obscure German art film? Or what about that impulse buy of a New York Times’ bestselling book? Or Q Magazine? In short, what outlets are there for those who still want to hold onto something physical as opposed to downloading a data file?

And sure, avid music fans most likely know which online sites to visit to find out what’s in the pipeline for the next six months or a year. And yes, there are more terrabytes of music to download than one knows what to do with, if you know where to go. But casual and big music lovers alike will admit there’s still something to be said for browsing the aisles and picking up a new (name your artist here) reissue. Or being able to find an old gem while shopping alongside a new friend. Or better yet, finding something new that you never knew existed, and meeting someone to talk about it along the way.

That’s why it’s good news that Aid Partners, a private equity firm, bought the rights to HMV in Hong Kong and Singapore recently. Perhaps they’ll learn from past lessons by lowering prices, thinking with their heads instead of the bottom line and make the stores an even more user friendly experience in the process.

For when it comes to the choice between talking about a song found on YouTube with that faceless buddy on Facebook or rubbing shoulders with someone while looking at a new album at HMV, the latter wins every time.

By Scott Murphy


Scott Murphy is Head Writer at SIREN FILMS – a HK based independent production and creative house. Find him on Twitter: @scottkmurphy.